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London, 1800-1913

The Urban Contexts of Crimes Tried at the Old Bailey

At the beginning of the nineteenth century London was the largest city in Europe. As the centre of government of a massive empire, London continued to grow at a phenomenal rate: in geographical size, in the numbers of souls it contained, and in its economic prosperity. But for all its wealth and brightly lit palaces, there remained districts of extreme poverty and squalor. And while its economic institutions and trading infrastructure grew ever more sophisticated, it was not until relatively late in the century that it acquired a centralized structure for management and planning. Governed by the London County Council, the city entered the twentieth century facing new challenges, including the dangers posed by motorised traffic and the direct action committed by the Suffragettes.

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A wall covered with a huge variety of advertisements and posters, with a bill sticker at work. John O. Parry, ‘A London street scene’ (1835). © Alfred Dunhill Museum and Archive

London’s population grew at a phenomenal rate. It was one million at the time of the first census in 1801; it had more than doubled half a century later and was over seven million by 1911. Much of this growth was the result of people migrating to the metropolis looking for work. In 1841 less than two-thirds of the capital's inhabitants had been born there. In addition to the migrants from the English, Welsh and Scottish counties there were thousands of Irish who came both before and after the famine. People spoke of second and third generation Irish as "Irish Cockneys" and the Police – even with a large number of Irishmen in their own ranks - were often wary of entering some of the poorer Irish districts.

As a great port and the capital of the largest European empire, London contained large numbers of Chinese, Blacks and Lascars, especially close by the docks. There were also people from all parts of Europe including, from the 1830s and 1840s, several hundred political refugees taking advantage of Britain’s boasted liberal laws. Living in the more central areas, these included, most notably, Guiseppe Mazzini, Karl Marx, the future Napoleon III and Johann Most , tried for seditious libel in 1881. The number of Jews increased considerably towards the end of the century as many fled pogroms and oppression in Eastern Europe.

For more information see the Communities of London and for a more detailed demographic account see A Population History of London.

The Built Environment

During the first half of the nineteenth century the attenuated fingers of urban sprawl that had grown during the eighteenth century first swelled into fat rivers of development, and then solid acres of suburban building. Initially there was ribbon development along the main roads running into the centre. Although a few areas of market gardening and pasturage for cows continued interspersed amidst London's dark brick form until the close of the century, these relics of the past were under constant pressure. In the 1830s villas for the wealthy began to spring up in areas like St. John’s Wood, and then south of the Thames (brought within the jurisdiction of the court in 1834). New bridges brought whole new populations to the open fields of Surrey, and parishes such as Dulwich and Norwood became settled by wealthy gentlemen and their families. Somewhat later, and especially from the 1870s onwards, builders began filling in the spaces between the ribbon developments, often with speculative housing for the respectable working class.

Different groups gathered in different areas. During the 1860s St John’s Wood was regarded as a centre for authors, journalists and publishers. Stockbrokers and merchants settled in Bayswater, Clapham, and Haverstock Hill, while clerks were to be found in Brixton, Dalston, New Cross, Tottenham and Walthamstow. The wealthiest of all sorts were to be found in detached villas in the leafy suburbs of Balham, Barnes, Hampstead, Highgate, Richmond and Sydenham. The growth of urban transport, though not without its problems, facilitated the move to the suburbs, making the daily trip to work in the centre easier as the century progressed. Indeed, from the second half of the century the growth of the metropolitan population was almost entirely confined to the outer suburbs.

An aerial view of the East India Docks, 1808, showing the major warehouse buildings and slips East India docks (1808). © Corporation of London Libraries and Guildhall Art Library

On the eastern side of the metropolis the first thirty years of the century saw great reception halls for international commerce - St Katherine's Dock, the East and West India Docks, the New Docks at Wapping and the Commercial Docks at Rotherhithe – consuming land adjacent to the Thames. The docks created, in the process, a series of new communities to house the tens of thousands of people – dockers, chandlers, and sailors - needed to make them work.

In the West End, in the early years of the century, Regent's Park and Trafalgar Square were carved out of two of the few remaining open spaces, while John Nash's imagination created ever-lengthening façades of arrogant stucco. But close by these elegant areas there were also appalling slums, notably the central "rookery" of St Giles where Charles Dickens went on patrol with Inspector Field of the Metropolitan Police. The cutting of New Oxford Street between Oxford Street and High Holborn during the 1840s marked the beginning of the end for "the Holy Land", as St. Giles was known to both its inhabitants and the police. Other new developments, especially in the last third of the century and often resulting from railway construction, had a similar impact on other slum districts, but Charles Booth’s massive survey of London at the close of the century highlighted many remaining poverty-riven streets where day labourers were believed to enhance their meagre earnings by criminal behaviour.

The infrastructure of the metropolis creaked under the strain of expansion, especially in the first half of the century. Even as street lighting and macadam reached in to many of the less pleasant corners of the city, arrangements for the disposal of the detritus of urban life became more difficult. The air became ever more polluted with the smuts and dank stinks of a coal fired world. London's famous fogs are mentioned in the Proceedings over ten times as often in the 113 years after 1800 as they are in the preceding 126 years. Other types of pollution became equally overwhelming. The sewers and nightsoil men grew increasingly inadequate to the task of removing the tons of human faeces produced each day. Even the bodies of the dead became a constant problem. The churchyards filled to overflowing, beyond the point where liberal doses of quicklime could speed the process of decay. Significant improvements came with the Metropolitan Board of Works (established in 1855), which embarked on a major programme of sewer construction and street and housing improvement schemes.

Individual streets and other place names can be identified in trials by using the Personal Details search page or keyword searching.

Social and Occupational Structure

London was the centre of what, in the middle of the nineteenth century, was hailed as "the workshop of the world". The Great Exhibition of 1851, housed in Hyde Park in Sir Joseph Paxton’s great glass and cast iron Crystal Palace, was a celebration of both the new industry and the accompanying "gospel of work". But London itself was not an industrial city; many of the manufacturing processes found in eighteenth-century London had moved to northern parts of the country where labour, land and raw materials were cheaper. London was an administrative centre for both the nation and the empire as well as for banking and commerce, and its economic and social structure reflected this.

The dockers and the growing number of clerks were an obvious aspect of the metropolitan economy. Less obvious were the tens of thousands of women who acted as domestic servants for the burgeoning middle class. According to the census of 1891 there were over 238,000 female domestic servants in London. A scattering of furniture workshops, as well as upholsters, glaziers, painters and decorators serviced the new estates as well as the established, elegant central districts. Pawnbrokers flourished in working-class neighbourhoods, reflecting the uncertain and still often intermittent and seasonal nature of employment. Together with their poorer cousins who ran "dolly shops", pawnbrokers were always suspect as receivers in the eyes of the police. Food processors and small shopkeepers of all kinds ran properties in the growing suburbs, while, in the second half of the century, the growth of large department stores in the centre led to growing numbers of shop assistants joining the clerks on the morning and evening commute.

A police officer shines a torch, illuminating a group of slum-dwellers in Whitechapel Gustave Dorè, 'The Bulls-Eye' (1872), from Gustave Dorè and Blanchard Jerrold, London: A Pilgrimage (1970), p.145.

If the eighteenth century had started the process of creating ever more solid social and geographical boundaries between classes, the nineteenth century completed the job. In the eyes of the rich, the poor appeared a different race, linked by a few miles or even a few yards of river front or city street but separated by a massive cultural chasm. When Charles Dickens wrote Oliver Twist, when in the 1820s the West End thrilled to the adventures of Tom and Jerry at "All-Max", the world exposed in such literature was unknown to most upper-class Londoners. The gradations between the rich and poor became ever more numerous, with a growing band of respectable poor, labour aristocrats, and complacent middle classes each claiming a distinct rung on the slippery ladder of social hierarchy.

Looking back over a long life from the vantage point of the 1830s, Francis Place was amazed by the transformation of manners among London's working population. The middling sort and artisanal classes had redefined themselves, while the very poor, often now regarded as indistinguishable from a "criminal" or "dangerous class", had been carefully squirreled out of sight. This identification of a distinct criminal class amongst the poor reached its peak in the middle of the century. The grim but vital character of the districts of the "criminal classes" is to be found in the illustrations of the French artist Gustav Doré published in 1872 in the book London, with a text by Blanchard Jerrold, while the sociological surveys of Henry Mayhew (published as London Labour and the London Poor in 1851-64) documented the numerous occupations of working-class Londoners.

You can search for particular occupations using both the personal details search page (for victim and defendant occupations) and keyword searching.

Culture and Politics

Nineteenth-century London was as much a city of science and art, theatre and literature as it was a commercial and manufacturing centre and a centre of poverty and crime. This was reflected in the urban landscape where, in addition to the great administrative buildings, including the new Houses of Parliament (1837-57) and the Central Criminal Court (1907), there were new buildings dedicated to the arts and learning – University College (1827-29), the British Museum (1823-47), the Victoria and Albert Museum (1899-1909).

Barges and larger ships crowd the northern shore of the Thames, with Tower Bridge framed in the middle of the picture. 'Shipping in the Pool of London: A vista from London Bridge to Tower Bridge', from St John Adcock, Wonderful London (1926/27), vol.I, p.24.

But, if people flocked to the metropolis, if art and trade, money and merchandise flowed in ever-greater quantities through this urban behemoth, for most of the century the politics of the city remained absurdly decentralized. The medieval City had long turned its back on the teeming masses outside its boundaries, and left the political ordering of these millions to a patchwork of parishes and county boards. The successive crises caused by cholera, the overpowering stench of human waste in the Thames, the overcrowding of the churchyards, and the general failure of infrastructure towards the middle of the century, prompted moves to create some kind of order out of the chaos. First, as noted above, came the Metropolitan Board of Works, elected by the Common Council of the City and the vestries. Then, in January 1889 came the first direct elections for a new metropolis-wide body to supervise metropolitan administration – the London County Council. But even after the creation of the LCC, London's government remained haphazard and decentralized, with the old vestries and City of London continuing to function in parallel to the LCC, while the new body was granted only limited powers over other city-wide organisations. Fear that an elected LCC might result in a socialist majority fuelled the argument for keeping the Metropolitan Police under the authority of the Home Secretary.

While few took to the streets to demand the reform of local government, urban radicals played a significant role in the long-drawn-out campaigns for the extension of the franchise. During the 1790s a powerful political infrastructure had been created in the corresponding societies. This laid the foundations for later radicalism. By the 1820s, after the popular upheaval associated with the Queen Caroline Affair, and driven by economic dislocation, working- and middle-class Londoners became increasingly politicised. In the 1830s and 1840s there were mass meetings of reformers, most notably the Chartists. There was rioting in Hyde Park at the time of the Second Reform Act in 1867, a massive demonstration in the same park with a crowd estimated at 120,000, during votes on the third reform act in 1884, and turbulence in the late 1880s as political radicals sought to channel the anger of the unemployed and underemployed. As the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth political agitation in the metropolis found a new voice and new forms of action with the Suffragettes.

Introductory Reading

  • Porter, Roy, London a Social History (London, 1994)
  • Dyos, H.J. and Wolff, Michael, eds, The Victorian City: Images and Realities (London, 1973)
  • Fox, Celina, London - World City, 1800-1840 (London, 1992)
  • White, Jerry, London in the Nineteenth Century (London 2007)

For more secondary literature on this subject see the Bibliography.

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